Transitioning into high school can be overwhelming for any student, but for those coming from a refugee background, there are even more challenges.
While we know a fair bit about the academic experience of child refugees starting school in a new country, we know little about how students feel in their new school environment – how they are coping, and if they are making friends.
Numbers of child refugees across Australia are rising. There are around 9,000 students enrolled in Victorian government schools, and around 8,000 in New South Wales – with 1,500 refugee students enrolling each year.
These young people have often faced many interruptions in their school lives – this might mean having to regularly change schools, or drop out for a period of time due to the uncertainty and turmoil that comes with being a refugee.
They also often have gaps in their knowledge within areas such as literacy and subject content. This can make learning about subjects such as science much more difficult, as they are doing so in a second language.
We know little about child refugee’s school experiences
The research I conducted gives some insight into this little-discussed area of how students are coping in their new school environment.
For one year, I analysed students’ experiences – through interviews, observations, work samples and reports – of the move from Victorian English language school (for which students receive six to 12 months of funding) into high school through the medium of pictures.
Pictures have been found to be a powerful data source for vulnerable young people, providing them with an alternative to express their voice and conceptualise their thoughts without the need for language.
Moo Dar Eh was 12 years old, born and raised in a Karenni refugee camp in Thailand. Six months after transitioning into Year 8 at high school, she drew a picture reflecting on her experience.
She features herself alone in the foreground, with the new school in the background. Her face is glum and drawn with a frown. Her hands are splayed wide, her feet shoeless. Without any books or bags, she seems unprepared for what lies ahead.
She also features herself alone and without any clear pathway to the school. The building captures the essence of “school as institution” with the detail and intricacy used to outline the school. It seems large and looming above her, without a soul to welcome her.
Research has shown that initially, mainstream school can be an overwhelming, isolating and lonely experience for refugee students. Eager to belong, make friends and build warm connections with teachers, students struggle to find their place.
Although schools organise orientation days and other supports, such initiatives often only last the first few days. But transition, in reality, is a long-term process.
Gay Paw, born and raised in a Thai refugee camp, was 15 years old when she started Year 9 at the beginning of term three in an Australian school.
Unlike Australian-born students who have continuous schooling and begin Year 7 in January, refugee students might start at any year level or term, depending on when they arrive in Australia. This is just one extra challenge these students must face.
Before her first day, Gay Paw admitted feeling a wide range of conflicting emotions: happiness, fear and excitement. In her picture, which she drew prior to starting high school, she notes how leaving the familiar English language school she had spent 12 months in provoked deep sadness. Confronting a new and daunting environment compelled her to draw tears on her face.
Her new school is drawn in the back corner of the page, devoid of details and lacking a pathway. She drew herself alone, marking her isolation and limited knowledge about how school works.
Feeling overwhelmed in transition is not an uncommon emotion for refugee-background students, who require explicit support to access education and advocate for their needs.
In spite of her anxiety, she still drew a smile on her face. In our interview six months after her transition, she explained that along with her fear, she also held hope and excitement for the new opportunities to come. She understood how valuable school could be in helping her make something of her future.
Determined to learn
For students who are on the cusp of being “too old” for high school, the most common options available are specialised work centres or adult English as a second language (ESL) courses at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges.
Yo Shu, a 17-year-old boy born and raised in a Thai refugee camp, had little prior schooling and first language literacy due to a lifetime of hard labour.
Entering year 12 and successfully completing VCE would have been impossible, so he instead chose TAFE. Unlike the other students in this study who felt anxious and overwhelmed, Yo Shu felt only excitement.
In his picture drawn six months after his transition, he drew himself as larger than life. His body bulges with muscles, and his face wears a look of determination. He holds an enormous pencil and behind him is a full page of his notebook.
All around Yo Shu float the many ways in which he tries to better himself: writing, speaking, listening and reading English. The entire focus is a single-minded dedication to his studies, and the will to improve academically was a matter of complete and utter embodiment.
Yo Shu was something of an anomaly, as his experience in transition was filled only with optimism and success. This is likely due to a combination of his upbeat personality, his excitement as his first real opportunity to obtain an education, and that placement in TAFE catered perfectly to his level of English and learning skills.
For the other students in this study, and for many refugee-background learners entering high school mid-stream as is often the case, the challenges which include keeping up with subjects, passing assessments and making friends can sometimes be almost too difficult to overcome.
Students are at risk of disengaging and dropping out from school – consequences of which can lead to social isolation, welfare dependence, uptake of drug and alcohol use and greater levels of depression.
What more can schools do to support students?
Transition is a key period for all students – and continues far beyond the first day of school.
Supports offered to refugee students need to consider the long-term aspects of transition, and that students with complex needs also require complex support.
One key finding from this research was how overwhelmed and isolated students felt during the initial period of transition. Feeling part of the school was central to their feelings about school as a whole. When connections were made with teachers and peers, they felt part of the community, their confidence was enhanced and students felt they had a safe space to ask for much-needed help. Research shows that this then enables students to engage and succeed in their education.
Schools can support the development of connections and sense of belonging for students in a number of ways, by:
creating formal and consistent bridging programmes that span the gap between English language school and high school
welcoming families and students with a celebratory lunch
holding information sessions for parents and guardians about the school
establishing peer-support programmes such as transition buddies to help guide the student around the school in their first few weeks and meet new friends
starting homework clubs
working together with language schools
sharing information about new students to school staff.
And how can teachers help?
organising class activities to welcome new students, such as fun self introduction games and encouraging peers to include new students at recess and lunch
implementing sensitive seating plans to encourage friendships
taking the time inside and outside of class to get to know students and build rapport
making space for students to share their stories about their life before Australia, their family, what they love to do and what they’re good at
integrating lessons which incorporate and build on their strengths and skills.
•Pseudonyms have been used for all the students mentioned in this piece.